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[ACCRA] A project to determine whether accessing customised market information as well as weekly weather forecasts through mobile phone short message service (SMS) can help farmers boost their yields and incomes is being trialled in rural Ghana.
The lack of access to information about the prices of crops in different markets hinders the ability of many African small holder farmers to negotiate for better prices, so the project hopes to give farmers more marketing options to enable them to earn more incomes from their harvests.
Nicholas Minot, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the lead organisation implementing the project, says the aim is to evaluate the impact of agricultural information delivered through mobile phones to farmers in Ghana.
"We do this by randomly selecting a group of farmers [with mobile phones] to receive information through SMS and later compare agricultural marketing outcome between these farmers and others who have not received the services," he tells SciDev.Net.  
The pilot study involving 570 smallholder farmers in Ghana’s northern regions started in November 2011 and ends by the close of 2014.
The project is funded by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a cost of more than US$10,000. Each farmer receives four messages a week at a cost of US18 cents, a cost that will be met by IFPRI.
Minot says that if the study shows positive impact on crops prices, yields and farm income in the long run, it may persuade government agencies to invest more in providing agricultural information to farmers, particularly using new low-cost methods with SMS and other ICT tools.
Esoko, an Accra-based private company that uses information and communications technology (ICT) to provide marketing information services is the other project’s partner.
Isaac Boateng, the monitoring and evaluation coordinator of Esoko, says they have  trained individuals — called enumerators — who collect price information at various markets and gather other content such as weather forecasts, fertiliser prices and transport costs from farms to the markets. The contents are then sent by mobile phones to a platform, certified and given out to farmers in real time through text messages.                                                                                                                    
Researchers are also replicating the project in Uganda.   
"We give them localised weather information and agronomical tips, for instance, a cropping calendar so that farmers get to know when to plant [each] variety of seeds to improve yields," Boateng tells SciDev.Net.
Boateng emphasises that in addition to text messages, a voice message in local language is sent to help farmers who cannot read.
Stephen Nketia, a food scientist at the Food Research Institute of Ghana’s Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, says that most farmers in rural areas now have mobile phones and can access commodity prices in various markets through such a project for improved profits.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.